Rescuing The Yazidis

by Jonah Shepp

More than half of the 40,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar by ISIS militants have managed to escape through a safe passage opened by Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish militias, but many still remain in danger:

The refugees, all members of the Yazidi sect, began streaming back into Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday after a perilous journey past Islamic State militants who had vowed to kill them and had surrounded their hideout on Mount Sinjar after storming the area. The day-long trek took them first over a mountain range into Syria, then through the Peshkhabour crossing three hours north-west of Irbil, where Kurdish officials were rushing to provide food and shelter.

Fleeing Yazidis said their escape had been aided by the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish rebel faction, and by US air strikes on Islamic State (Isis) positions which had forced the jihadists to withdraw for around six hours on Saturday. Their retreat gave a window for thousands of Yazidis, all desperately low on food and water, to begin streaming down the mile-high mountain and north across the Nineveh plains, which have been an ancient homeland of Iraqi minorities.

It’s important to remember that “rescuing” the Yazidis means, for now, sending them to save havens far from home. They are refugees, part of a massive wave of displacement, and will require consistent support while in exile and at some point (hopefully) in returning to their homes. I stress this because refugees have a tendency to get buried in our consciousness of protracted conflicts, especially in the Middle East. Esther Yu-Hsi Lee tallies the Iraqis displaced in the current conflict, who number over 1 million:

Just this week alone, the rapid advance of ISIL forces in several cities of Iraq has forced the internal displacement of about 195,000 refugees, including adherents of the religious Yazidi sect, Palestinians, and Turkmen living in Iraq — a move that has sent neighboring countries and international agencies scrambling to accommodate the refugee crisis within Iraq. …

Overall, nearly 200,000 internally displaced people have fled away from major cities, like Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city captured by ISIL this week, with the greatest concentration of people fleeing towards the northern provinces of Dahuk, Erbil, and Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah, near Turkey. Between January and July, there were at least 1.2 million displaced refugees within Iraq. And in June, the United Nations upgraded Iraq’s crisis to a level 3 humanitarian disaster — the most severe rating it has.

There’s really no overstating how catastrophic this situation is. Hundreds of thousands of refugees is one thing; hundreds of thousands more refugees, on top of multiple, unresolved refugee crises involving millions of people, is quite another. The sheer scale of the displacement is hard for us as Americans to comprehend, which makes it equally hard to appreciate the outsized role refugees have played in the history of the modern Middle East and the conflicts playing out there today. Some Arab communities, particularly the Palestinians, have suffered the trauma of being shuffled from one conflict zone to another over the course of three generations. That has to take a toll on one’s psychological wellbeing as well as one’s worldview: it’s really no shocker that people in such an intractable predicament are prone to radicalization and have a hard time building democratic states and civil societies.